Making social science accessible

07 Aug 2020


UK-EU Relations

Brexit emigration

A report released earlier this week confirmed that the numbers of British citizens emigrating to the EU27 between 2016-18 had increased by 30% in comparison to data collected 2008-15.

The report’s authors argue that these statistics suggest that the collective uncertainty introduced by Brexit influences migration decision making.

Drawing on interviews conducted with British citizens who have moved to Germany since the Referendum, they confirm that Brexit emerged as a significant theme in explaining migration to the EU.

Within a context of global migrations, British emigration is idiosyncratic. While in other countries emigration maps onto major moments of political and economic transformation, the emigration of British citizens has remained stable over a prolonged period of time; even in the present-day the rates of British emigration are among the highest in the world.

Looking across the Irish Sea offers a particularly instructive contrast, and the widescale emigrations attributed to the Great Famine, and more recently the collapse of the Celtic Tiger Economy, form part of the national story of identity and belonging.

The relative stability of Britain’s emigration rates suggests that it is not a trend that has hitherto been characterised by event-based responses.

The rise in emigration to the EU—while nowhere near as extensive as in the cases above—since the Referendum suggests that Brexit might prove an exception.

In what follows, I want to build on the findings presented in the report to give a little more depth to what this tells us about British emigration in Brexit times, and to elaborate further on why British citizens might be moving to the EU in greater numbers since the Referendum.

Who is emigrating in Brexit times?

While the statistics tell us that an increased number of people are migrating to the EU since the Referendum, and give us a sense of how many British citizens are emigrating to the EU and where they are headed, they do not reveal anything about the demographics of this population in terms of, for example, age, gender, class, ethnicity and disability.

This is a longstanding issue, and the lack of detailed—and indeed, accurate and reliable—statistics about Britain’s diverse emigrant population is an obstacle to making sense of what Brexit might variously mean for them, and keeping them on the political and public agenda throughout the Brexit negotiations.

More fine-grained statistics would permit us to look beyond the changes in volume, and into questions of who can and is emigrating in Brexit times. Demographic mapping helps to anticipate of what this emigration means for the UK and indeed, countries of settlement.

They would help us to move beyond the tired stereotypes of British citizens living in the EU as pensioners.

Further, they would provide ballast for thinking about the conditions and personal circumstances that make emigration in possible, to move beyond Brexit as context and into the question of how it interplays with the act of migration.

This includes the question of what resources—broadly conceived to include not only their finances, but also their networks, knowledge and understanding, past experiences—people are drawing on in these times to bring about migration.

Emigrating … because of Brexit?

What statistics and the top-level analysis presented in the report can’t tell us is how and in what ways this moment of political and economic transformation shapes migrants’ decision making.

For example, beyond the collective sense of uncertainty that the report’s authors highlight, the rise in emigration from the UK to EU also responds to uncertainty about what Brexit will mean for the future rights of British citizens to live and work in the EU once they are no longer eligible for freedom of movement.

However, I want to stress here that these are only some of the factors that come into play. Changing legal status and dissatisfaction with the UK alone offer context to why people might migrate, but migration is brought about through the interplay of personal circumstances, material and embodied, interpersonal negotiations, projections and imaginings of life elsewhere, as well as the institutional frameworks shaping migration.

A deeper analysis might reveal the complex ways in which Brexit shapes the conditions and circumstances that bring about emigration.

For example, in her contribution to the BrExpats research in 2017, Helèna explained the factors that came together in her and her husband’s decision to move to France with their young family:

I already lost my job as a result of Brexit through a drop in students at the university where I have been lecturing. And after Brexit last year we decided straight away, let’s sell the house and take our chances on the continent.

While briefly stated, this shows how it is not Brexit in the abstract that influences migration, but its tangible impacts on people’s lives.

Brexit is presented as a watershed moment, the tipping point, outweighing the uncertainties about life following migration including unresolved questions about whether they would be able to find work or generate income, and whether their savings would stretch far enough to support them in the long term.

Just as previous moments of political and economic transformation in Britain informed emigration decision-making, Brexit has become a justification for actions that might appear (economically) irrational or uncertain.

What next?

While the data show that more people are migrating from the UK to the EU in a time of Brexit and that Brexit is significant within this, it remains to be seen whether this rise has been sustained into transition.

For example, it may be the case that there is a last minute rush of British citizens hoping to gain lawful residence in the EU before the end of transition, in this way securing their rights under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. Covid-19 will likely prove a further complicating factor within this.

However, what remains outstanding is the question of how Brexit shapes emigration and, in the context of migration decision making how it interacts with a range of other personal and individual circumstances.

By Dr Michaela Benson, research lead at The UK in a Changing Europe for the project BrExpats and Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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